Referendums Essay, Research Paper

??????????? Referendums are defined as being the

submission of a political question to the direct vote of the electorate,

whereas elections are defined as public choice of governmental representatives

under a democratic system. Although both require the electorate to vote in a

similar way using a ballot box in a polling station, they are in fact quite

different. Elections require the voter to choose which MP and which political

party they would prefer to form the government and run the country, for example

the 1997 election where the electorate voted to bring the Labour Party lead by

Tony Blair into power. Referendums, however, happen when the government in

power decides to put a question to the public to find out their views on the

issue, for example a referendum on the issue of whether Britain should join the

single European currency is imminent. (b) Referendums have

been used much more widely in recent years, not only in Britain but all over

the world, especially in liberal democracies where the government believes it

is important to increase direct democracy. Even though the use of referendums

have increased, there has been only eleven referendums in the past twenty five

years, and almost half have took place while the present Labour government have

been in office. Examples of British referendums are: the referendum on the

devolution of Wales, which produced a ?yes? outcome; the London, Scotland and

Northern Ireland referendums on devolving central government power; on the

dissolution of marriage; and the referendum on Cabinet Confidentiality. An

example of a referendum that is imminent could be the decision whether to join

the Euro or not; however, it is unlikely that this will take place before the

next general election and if the Conservative Party become government then it

will be even less likely that a referendum will take place due to the

Conservative?s commitment to saving the pound. Similarly, the entire UK

electorate will have to decide on a new voting system for Westminster, and

seeing as it is unlikely that a new system could be implemented before the next

election, the Conservatives could easily postpone the introduction of reform is

they returned to power.In Liberal

democracies such as America, Canada, France and Australia referendums have

become a common device for enhancing citizen democracy. Referendums in America

such as the prohibition referendum have helped people feel that they are

participating in politics. For example, in Texas, the introduction of

television voting was supposed to enhance democracy by widening the franchise

and make people feel like they were being a good citizen. However, referendums

may not always be seen as positive, such as the Marxist belief that referendums

are purely a sham and a cover up to government manipulation, i.e. people are

conned into thinking it?s democratic when it?s actually the opposite way round.Governments think

that by having frequent referendums they are not only involving the public in

democracy and reconnecting politics with the people, but also making them more

accountable to Parliament and the public. However, some people argue that New

Labour especially are using them to carry through radical changes in our

constitutional system without proper rules, and open to the possibility of rigging

the outcome. A solution to this could be a set of rules governing the use of

referendums, as if these were followed, there would be less room for criticism

and more chance for direct democracy.Referendums shouldn?t

be used to simply side-step parliamentary protocol, and they should not be a

substitute for parliamentary democracy; they should be used whenever the public

show they have strong views on and issue, either through petitions or pressure

groups. For example, the issue of fox hunting has become extremely

controversial, and a referendum would easily produce a clear outcome. In the

referendum for Wales, the referendum could have easily produced the opposite

outcome if the campaign had been fairer ? this is a perfect example of the

government almost abusing the power they had over the referendum. Maybe the

government realise they can use referendums in their favour, and maybe this

could be a valid reason explaining the increased use of asking the people?s

opinion.Overall, referendums

definitely have been used much more frequently over the past few years, and

this is due to many reasons, both for the government?s and the public?s favour.(c)Despite the arguments

that appear against the use of referendums, there are many advantages which

explain the use of them in the first place. Obviously the far most important

issue is that fact that democracy is enhanced by public participation; they

feel like they are involved in politics and this will not only educate and

stimulate the voters but also make them more aware about politics and the views

and promises of the government itself. As people are being given a more direct

participation in the decision making process, they may feel possibly prouder to

be a citizen as their individual preferences are being taken into

consideration. It is even argued that if politicians are seen to care about the

views of the people, the gap that has opened up between the governing and the

governed will be narrowed.Even though no

large-scale referendums took place in Britain until 1973, political parties are

using them to their advantage. This is a definitely a positive thing for the

parties themselves, however opponents of the use of referendums could argue

that political parties use them to quickly pass through radical change. The power of

backbenchers in the House of Commons might be increased through the use of

referendums, especially if they were in a position to insist on a referendum as

a condition for supporting a bill, as happened in 1978 over devolution. However,

backbencher MPs may disagree as their role as a representative to their

constituency may be at risk as the use of referendums increases since

constituents use their MP to put forward their ideas in Parliament. This could

also be seen as an advantage as the use of referendums would surely then

strengthen representative government by weakening a party system that

frequently fails to represent the will of the public. But then again, this is

also open to criticism.Some people argue

that parliamentary sovereignty could be threatened by the establishment of an

alternative means of ratifying laws, made clear by Margaret Thatcher in 1975

?To subject laws retrospectively to a popular vote suggests a serious breach to

this principle?. This can easily be contradicted by the argument that

parliamentary sovereignty ultimately lies in the sovereignty of the people in a

democratic system. Also, as long as referendums have to be approved by

parliament and remain advisory, rather than binding, sovereignty will remain in

parliament?s hands and representative government will be untouched.Supporters of

referendums believe that only through a referendum can a government receive a

clear, final decision through guidance from the public on a particular issue.

This cannot be done in a general election, as the public doesn?t always vote

for party policies in particular, maybe because they are not fully aware of the

policies in the first place. In 1975, the Leader of the House of Commons, Ted

Short, justified the use of a referendum in the decision to stay in the

European Community by saying ?Only by means of a referendum can we find out

whether the British people do or do not consent to our continued membership?.

Similarly, the Prime Minister in office at the time of the European referendum

said ?It means that fourteen years of national argument are over?, emphasising

the ability to make a final decision on various issues. Using the promise of

referendums have proved to play a part in attracting support for political

parties in general elections. A possible example could have been the Labour

Party before the 1997 election. They promised referendums on reform, devolution

and the Euro, and since the Conservative Party were opposed to change involving

these issues, a percentage of the electorate may have voted according to these

policies.Referendums can be

used to break deadlocks between the Houses of Lords and Commons. Although this

doesn?t happen as frequently nowadays, in the crisis of 1909-1911 over the

People?s Budget and the Parliament Bill the Conservatives proposed for any bill

relating ?to a matter of great gravity? to be taken to a referendum if rejected

by the Lords.Another perfectly

valid reason that surely it is the British citizens? right to be asked their

opinion in certain cases, because the fundamental issues are matters which

affect the future direction of the country, and to keep the interests of the

public in hand, governments should continue to use referendums.Regarding the

democratic relevance of referendums, in theory, our system emphasises the

importance of the supremacy of Parliament, but in practice many people feel

that our machinery does not work as well as it should, and ploys such as

referendums and electoral reform might improve the health and vitality of the

political progress.Overall, even though

there are both advantages and disadvantages for the use of referendums, as long

as referendums are fair and honest there is nothing wrong with using them to

their full advantage.(d)Despite the use of referendums

more widely over recent years, this form of democracy has been open to

criticism of many different kinds. Not only have

referendums been accused of being unfair through many different means, but also

the subject of parliamentary sovereignty and representative government has been

threatened. People may argue that a clear, final decision can be made through

use of a referendum, but this is not always the case, the perfect example being

in 1955 when the Swedish government ignored the people?s vote to continue to

drive on the left hand side of the road. To consult and then to ignore the

verdict is worse than ever to have sought an opinion in the first place. One of the main

criticisms of the use of referendums is the fact that the democratic accountability

is paradoxically under threat from the Government?s regular use of them. The

word ?paradoxically? has been used because referendums are often seen as the

most democratic way of taking government decisions, but in reality, they are

not. Often, the questions put to the public are very ambiguous, and both sides

of the argument do not fairly put their case to the voters. Michael Ancram once

described referendums as ?dangerous weapons of national self-delusion and

cosmetic democracy?, which clearly shows that the government?s use of

referendums can manipulate the public. For example, the present Government?s

plan for spending limits in referendums could be used to explain the attempt to

rig the vote on the abolishment of the pound. Not only would this impose an

unwarranted restriction on free speech, but would be futile to prevent British

people from expressing their opinion. Jack Straw wants to propose a £5 million

spending cap on the Euro referendum for each party with two or more MPs. This

is not an equal formula as Labour, the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid Cymru

are all opposed to the Conservative?s commitment to saving the pound. This will

not only allow more propaganda on the pro-Europe side, but also then in turn

manipulate the public into voting for what the Labour party wants. A similar example of

the unfairness of referendums took place in 1997 when the referendum for the

devolution of Wales happened, which allowed Wales to have an assembly. The

Neill Committee?s report said the campaign could have gone the other way if it

had been fairer. As the Government funds backed the ?yes? vote, the report

suggested the campaign for a Welsh assembly only won narrowly due to this fact.

The votes counted showed 559,419 votes to 552,698 votes, that being only 50.1%

of the electorate anyway. The ?No? campaign was seriously underfunded, which

would mean that they would have less money for propaganda and advertising,

therefore making the argument very one-sided. To solve the problem of being

accused in this way, funds should be provided for both sides of any issue

subject to a referendum, and the government should remain neutral throughout

the campaign.Another disadvantage

of referendum that falls into the unfairness category could be the accusation

that governments use referendums to side-step parliamentary protocol i.e.

stepping past Parliament by side-stepping its conventions and putting power

directly in the hands of the electorate. An ex Conservative MP Jonathon Sayeed

said ?Referendums are not a substitute for parliamentary democracy and must

only be used sparingly?. Many people have accused the present Labour Government

of abusing this convention and having four referendums in their first year of

office. Criticism of the government?s multiple use of referendums has not been

confined to the Conservative benches either; Labour MP Martin Linton agreed it

was vital for a proper debate to take place before any referendum, as this

didn?t happen before the vote for London mayor and assembly.Marxists would agree

that by using referendums, the public sees it as a chance to be involved in

politics and be educated by their nature. In the public?s eyes, the chance for

direct democracy is a positive thing as it helps the government to be more

accountable, however, the public don?t always take a fully extended interest in

what is actually going on. Only the people who research it and find out that

referendums are sometimes being used to quickly carry through radical changes

in our constitutional system without any rules realise that the ?direct

democracy? is often a cover-up.To overcome these

criticisms of referendums being accused as ?a Bonapartist device for

manipulating the public?, they should be governed by legislation. As the use of

referendums has become much more common recently, both in Britain and many

other places around the world, we have no rules governing their use. At

present, the government decides when and on what issues they will be held so

they become another political tool for the party in power. If a set of rules

was passed, it may limit the government on their use of referendums, but it

would make them a formal part of the political process, and would draw the

attention back to the real reason of using them in the first place; to enhance

fair direct democracy.

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